How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

By Larry Holzwarth
How the US Navy Helped Find Titanic and Other Sunken Ships

When Dr. Robert Ballard of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute announced to the world that the lost Royal Mail Ship (RMS) Titanic had been found, he created a global sensation. Titanic sank in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Over 1,500 people died in the sinking. Though its story, told by survivors and rescuers was well known, its exact location was not. Confused reports of where the ship struck the iceberg, and how far it had drifted before it went down, made locating its exact resting place problematic. There were also conflicting reports over whether the ship had broken up prior to sinking.

Survivors of Titanic’s sinking gave conflicting accounts of what they saw. National Archives

Ballard’s mapping and photographing the site of the wreck provided answers which were subsequently amplified upon by later expeditions. It also generated renewed interest in the ship, its passengers, and the tragedy which befell them. Salvage operations were proposed and undertaken, much to Ballard’s dismay. But what remained a secret for decades was the true purpose of Ballard’s operations that summer of 1985. He had been at sea for another purpose prior to finally locating the wreck of the Titanic. Here is the true story of the search for RMS Titanic and what preceded and followed its finding.

129 souls were lost when USS Thresher sank during a test dive in April, 1963. Wikimedia

1. USS Thresher and all aboard it were lost during a test dive on April 10, 1963

USS Thresher was on a post-shakedown availability (meaning at sea testing following a period in the shipyard for maintenance and repairs) when it began a series of deep-dive tests. On one such dive it reported to its escort vessel, the submarine rescue ship USS Skylark, that it was encountering “minor difficulties”. Further garbled messages came from the submarine over the next few minutes before communications ceased. By mid-day the surface units in the area were aware that Thresher had sunk, and given the depth of the water in the area, all hands aboard (129 members of the crew and shipyard workers) were lost.

An extensive search for the lost submarine (America’s first nuclear submarine to be lost) began immediately. An oceanographic ship, USNS Mizar located the wreckage in several sections at a depth of 8,400 feet, well over a mile beneath the surface. The deep-diving vessel Trieste was brought to the site and by September had photographed large pieces of the shattered submarine. The following September a more advanced bathyscaphe, Trieste II, combed the site and recovered some pieces of the wreckage. The Navy initiated programs to render submarines safer in the aftermath, and the remains of USS Thresher were for the most part left alone.